07/05/2004, 00.00
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Religious Freedom under Tight Control (Profile)

Baku (AsiaNews) – Azerbaijan's authorities manage religious affairs by putting tight controls on religious freedom, an approach that includes using a benevolent carrot and a coercive stick. In a population of 8 million people, Muslims represent the majority (83.7%, more than 60% Shiites). Christians are 4.6%, whilst baptised Catholics are about 300 in total.

 On the one hand, people are free to worship. Religious groups are allowed to exist and can engage in teaching and proselytising activities. Independent since 1991, this young nation is in fact officially secular but it still recognises a special role for Islam and its ethics in public life. On the other hand, the ruling elite is worried about the rise of political Islam and for this reason it has tried to control religious groups or limit their activities, in some circumstances going as far as banning them altogether.

 All Muslim religious activities must be registered with the Muslim Council and the State Committee for Religious Affairs. The latter have often censured religious literature and clamped down on groups trying to avoid state supervision. The expulsion of worshipers from the Djuma Mosque in Baku on June 30 seems to be motivated by political considerations than religious ones thus reflecting a desire to keep a lid on political dissent.

 As for foreign religious groups, Baku's attitude seems to be largely informed by its relations with their respective country of origin. For instance, while geography and religion (Shiism) would encourage closer ties to Iran, Azerbaijan sees itself historically and culturally closer to secular Turkey. This explains why Turkish Islamic groups can more easily operate in the country than those from Iran.

 The authorities have even encouraged some religious activities. "In some cases, the religious renaissance is directly encouraged and protected by the state as a way of channelling towards a new national ideology," said Bayram Balci of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies. Although not very democratic, Azeri religious policy is a complex and measured web that so far has successfully avoided antagonising local Muslims. In so doing it has avoided the rise of a more radical Islam. And this is the opposite of what is happening in Uzbekistan. (F.C.)

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